Chico Ruiz has not started a game for the Cincinnati Reds in six weeks now, and he has come to the dugout prepared. In one hand is a cushion, for the bench and what it will meet; in the other a glove, for infield practice. Under an arm are a pair of special spiked shoes, soft alligator spikes that make Chico's feet feel so comfortable as he sits on the bench. It is already very warm in Crosley Field, and if it gets much worse Chico will go back into the clubhouse and get the battery-driven fan the people in St. Louis gave him. Those people were very thoughtful; St. Louis can be murder in August, sitting in the dugout.
Dumping his equipment on the bench, Chico ambles down to the watercooler. On the way back he glances at the lineup card taped to the dugout wall, and suddenly Chico cannot believe his big brown eyes. There it is, so simply, yet so unexpectedly, in small block letters printed by Manager Dave Bristol: before ARRIGO, 1, and after HELMS, 4, the card says, RUIZ, 6.
He swallows hard. It has been a long time and maybe he has forgotten how it feels to face the same pitcher more than once. In the sixth, though, with the Reds down 1-0, it is Ruiz who gets a hit against the San Francisco Giants—a two-strike, bad-ball, wrong-field double off the mighty Juan Marichal. And then he scores the first run in a game the Reds are to win 4-3. But such moments are rare, for Ruiz is a hardcore substitute. He is, in fact, the prototype substitute. Chico has played first base, second, third and shortstop, left field, center and right. He is, in the lexicon of the game, a utility man, and, indeed, he perfectly suits the dictionary definition of utility: "the quality or state of being useful; usefulness." Or, to take the definition a step further, Ruiz possesses, like the phone company (sometimes), "power to satisfy human wants."
Certainly, these are the best of times for the Ruiz types. The logistics of modern baseball—schedule, travel, expansion—have made the versatile subs more in demand than ever. They are especially valuable in the midsummer months, when so many young stars are required to attend two weeks of reserve military training. With one thing or another, the Reds have had to start Chico this year more than ever before.
Still, whether it is soldiering, sickness or slumps that gets Ruiz into the lineup, he has never been able sufficiently to satisfy the human wants of any of his Cincinnati managers—Dick Sisler, Don Heffner or Dave Bristol—to stay in the lineup. Chico has been sitting on the bench now for five years.
He is, of course, not alone in this occupation. Except for a couple of seasons when he did play regularly, Ducky Schofield of Boston has been a part-timer in the majors for 15 years. Others in the elite of the utility include players like Dick Tracewski of Detroit, Chico Salmon of Baltimore, Jose Pagan of Pittsburgh, Jerry Adair of Kansas City, Tom Satriano of Boston and Frank Quilici of Minnesota. Go to the park early and you will not need a program to identify players like these. Utility men are easily distinguishable because they always take batting practice first and then scatter to various parts of the field to run down balls hit by the regulars.
After a game, if they are on the road, the utility men often go out together. They have learned to enjoy each other's company, for they know each other very well—all the strong points and weak ones, the prides, prejudices and hangups. Sit on the bench with a guy for seven months and you get to know him better than if you are playing next to him.
Utility players also often learn more about the game than do the regulars who have to concentrate on playing their own position. Considering, as well, that the subs naturally tend to be tolerant of others with limited talent, it is perhaps not surprising that a good number of them finally beat out the regulars at something—making manager. Gene Mauch, Ralph Houk, Dick Williams and Joe Schultz are present managers among the many who graduated from the bench. If you do not get to see your favorite journeyman emerge from the shadows of the dugout this season, come back in a decade or so and you may find him in the spotlight, carrying lineup cards to the plate and escorting pitchers from the mound.
Virtually all substitutes will admit that warming a bench in a professional manner was hardly what they had in mind when they set out in baseball to make fortune and fame. Some are, in fact, bitter about their experience. A few somehow remain indifferent to it all, but most of them soon become realistic about their status and even learn to accept it with humor. When Al Spangler of the Cubs cost his team a game a couple of years ago by dropping a relatively easy pop fly, he apologized afterward to Manager Leo Durocher. "I'm sorry, Leo," he said, "but it's this glove. I've been trying to break it in for 10 years."
"I got used to not playing pretty early," Spangler says easily. "You have to or you won't be around very long. You've got to keep yourself in a good frame of mind. If you're lucky, the manager or some of the coaches will help you out because somebody has to make you feel as important as the starters; you can't do it all yourself."